Emory Report

January 25, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 17

Edward Wilson's 'Origins' lecture jams Glenn to capacity

More than 1,300 people packed into Glenn Auditorium the night of Jan. 15 to hear Harvard University naturalist Edward Wilson attempt to lay the groundwork for a bridge between "scientific and literary frames of mind."

Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, was delivering the keynote address for the Origins Symposium, presented by the Living Links Center at Yerkes. The symposium was dedicated to examining the evolutionary aspects of several cultural issues including war, peace, economics and others; Wilson has built a worldwide reputation as a proponent of "consilience," a school of thought which holds that all systems--natural and social--can be explained through the laws of science.

Indeed, consilience suggests that "natural" and "social" is a false dichotomy. "There are two ways to account for the human condition: the natural sciences, and all the other ways," Wilson said, only half-jokingly. Consilience, he explained, dates back to 1840 and is the "mother's milk of natural sciences." As the pendulum of thought swings back toward the importance of "nature" over "nurture" in the development of species, Wilson said, "the time has come to consider more seriously the relevance of consilience to the social sciences."

"The nub of the problem is the belief that a fault line exists between the natural and social sciences, between the scientific and literary frames of mind," he said. "But the distinction is not a barrier to protect 'high culture' from the barbarians of reductionist science--it is a broad domain awaiting cooperative scholarship."

Wilson spoke for nearly an hour to the bursting crowd and then answered questions for nearly another half-hour. He used examples from anthropology, psychology and biology to support his positions and laced his lecture with dry humor. For example, toward the end of the lecture Wilson addressed the topic of sexual attraction, "which 40 years of teaching Harvard undergraduates has taught me I must insert three-fourths through class to make their heads pop up."

He offered studies showing that men across cultures are attracted to facial symmetries and complexions of young women, and to verify he challenged the crowd to "ask any middle-aged professor whose second wife is a graduate student. Is it too hard to say? Ask the American president."

Wilson concluded his lecture by declaring that humans, "at long last, have acquired the capability of proving this union of knowledge or disproving it." During the Q&A period, he grappled with such notions as whether all of Earth's biosphere forms a single living organism; whether God is dead; and whether humanity is suicidal.

The capacity crowd for Wilson's address marked the success of the Origins symposium. According to Living Links, more than 600 people registered for a full day of lectures and discussions the next day in WHSCAB Auditorium.

--Michael Terrazas

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